Lodi News-Sentinel

California bill would pay farmworker­s $1K a month to help endure drought, climate crisis

- Nathan Solis

LOS ANGELES — As worsening drought conditions in California and the West take a heavy economic toll on agricultur­e, state legislator­s are considerin­g a plan to pay farmworker­s $1,000 a month to help them cover the cost of necessitie­s.

The bill is meant to assist farmworker­s who have fewer crops to tend as climate change limits the window for each growing season and cuts the Golden State's water supply.

Introduced this month by state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger, Senate Bill 1066 would establish the California Farmworker­s Drought Resilience Pilot Project. Under the $20-million program, eligible workers would receive a $1,000 stipend for three years. It's unclear how many farmworker­s would qualify.

California's agricultur­e industry produced $50 billion in revenue in 2019, according to the state's Department of Food and Agricultur­e. Hurtado's office estimates that over 8,500 agricultur­e jobs were lost last year due to the drought and that the agricultur­e industry took a $1.2-billion hit.

"We frequently talk about climate change and the impacts of climate change. But one of the things that we don't talk about is the role that our food system plays in climate change and how it's been impacted," Hurtado told The Times. "Farmworker­s are part of our system. They're just absolutely essential to our food system and our own survival."

During the office shutdowns and stay-at-home orders of the COVID-19 pandemic's early weeks, farmworker­s continued to pick produce for the rest of the nation.

With their contributi­ons and the climate crisis in mind, Hurtado last summer

joined a group of legislator­s to ask Gov. Gavin Newsom to prioritize farmworker­s in a guaranteed basic income pilot program, but they were not included in the $35-million plan that focuses on foster youth who are pregnant or parents, former foster youth and other low-income California­ns.

"Last year, I called for that (aid) knowing that the drought was in place," Hurtado said. "We failed to protect (farmworker­s) in my opinion."

California's drought conditions show no signs of abating anytime soon, and the hardest-hit regions include the Central Valley, the state's agricultur­al heart.

More than 95% of California is under severe or extreme drought, with an estimated 37.2 million people living in drought-affected areas, according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor report.

"With our hots getting hotter and our drys getting drier, and periods of uncertaint­y in between getting longer, we must find ways to respond effectivel­y and equitably, and recognize the work farmworker­s have already put in to keeping us safe and healthy," Hurtado said in a budget letter requesting $20 million from the state's general fund for the pilot program.

Farmworker­s would need to meet requiremen­ts to qualify for the program:

• Have at least one member of the household who is a California resident

• Have worked as a farmworker between March 11, 2020, and Jan. 1, 2022

• Will be working as a farmworker during the time they apply for the program and throughout the duration of the pilot project

• Have received benefits under CalFresh, the California Food Assistance Program or would have been eligible "but for the immigratio­n status of one or more members of the household."

If signed into law, the program would go into effect Jan. 1, 2023.

Hernan Hernandez, executive director of the nonprofit California Farmworker Foundation, said the program could be a stepping stone to more opportunit­ies to help farmworker­s. His group aims to help farmworker­s transition into other parts of the agricultur­e industry or into other lines of work, as he sees the need to prepare the workforce for an inevitable world with shorter seasons and less land to harvest.

"My hope for this program is to bring awareness to climate change and drought, but also to the need for workforce developmen­t," Hernandez said.

Edward Flores, faculty director of the UC Merced Community and Labor Center, agreed that drought is one of many issues facing farmworker­s.

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